Prostitution in Japan

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Tokyo's Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, antique postcard

Prostitution in Japan has existed throughout the country's history. While the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1956 states that "No person may either do prostitution or become the customer of it," loopholes, liberal interpretations of the law, and loose enforcement have allowed the sex industry to prosper and earn an estimated 2.3 trillion yen ($24 billion) a year.[citation needed]

In Japan, the "sex industry" is not synonymous with prostitution. Since Japanese law defines prostitution as "intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment," most sex clubs offer only non-coital services to remain legal.[1] This has led Joan Sinclair, the author of Pink Box, to observe that the sex industry in Japan ironically "offer[s] absolutely everything imaginable but sex."[2]


From the 15th century, Chinese, Koreans and other East Asian visitors frequented brothels in Japan.[3]

This practice later continued among visitors from "the Western regions", mainly European traders who often came with their South Asian lascar crew (in addition to African crew members, in some cases).[4] This began with the arrival of Portuguese ships to Japan in the 16th century, when the local Japanese people assumed that the Portuguese were from Tenjiku ("Heavenly Abode"), the Japanese name for the Indian subcontinent (due to its importance as the birthplace of Buddhism) and that Christianity was a new "Indian faith." These mistaken assumptions were due to the Indian state of Goa being a central base for the Portuguese East India Company and due to a significant portion of the crew on Portuguese ships being Indian Christians.[5]

Portuguese visitors and their South Asian and African crew members often engaged in slavery in Japan, where they bought or captured young Japanese women and girls, who were either used as sexual slaves on their ships or taken to Macau and other Portuguese colonies in Southeast Asia, the Americas,[4] and India, where they were a community of Japanese slaves and traders in Goa by the early 17th century.[6] Later European East India companies, including those of the Dutch and British, were involved in prostitution while visiting or staying in Japan.[7]

Edo era[edit]

Map of the Yoshiwara from 1846.

In 1617, the Tokugawa Shogunate issued an order restricting prostitution to certain areas on the outskirts of cities, known as yūkaku (遊廓、遊郭?, pleasure quarter). The three most famous were Yoshiwara in Edo (present-day Tokyo), Shinmachi in Osaka, and Shimabara in Kyoto.

Prostitutes and courtesans were licensed as yūjo (遊女), "women of pleasure", and ranked according to an elaborate hierarchy, with tayū and later oiran at the apex. The districts were walled and guarded for taxation and access control. Rōnin, masterless samurai, were not allowed in and neither were the prostitutes let out, except to visit dying relatives and, once a year, for hanami (viewing cherry blossoms).

Prewar modern era[edit]

The opening of Japan and the subsequent flood of Western influences into Japan brought about a series of changes in the Meiji period. Japanese novelists, notably Higuchi Ichiyō, started to draw attention to the confinement and squalid existence of the lower-class prostitutes in the red-light districts. In 1872, the María Luz Incident led Government of Meiji Japan to make a new legislation, emancipating burakumin outcasts, prostitutes and other forms of bonded labor in Japan.[8] The emancipating law for prostitution was named Geishougi kaihou rei (芸娼妓解放令). In 1900, the Japanese Government promulgated Ordinance No. 44, Shogi torishimari kisoku(娼妓取締規則), restricting the labor conditions of prostitution.

In 1908, the Ministry of Home Affairs' Ordinance No. 16 penalized unregulated prostitution.[citation needed]


Karayuki-san (唐行きさん literally "Ms. Gone-to-China" but actually meaning Ms. Gone Abroad"?) were Japanese women who traveled to or were trafficked to East Asia, Southeast Asia and as far as San Francisco in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century to work as prostitutes, courtesans and geisha.

Many of the women who went overseas to work as karayuki-san were the daughters of poor farming or fishing families. The mediators, both male and female, who arranged for the women to go overseas would search for those of appropriate age in poor farming communities and pay their parents, telling them they were going overseas on public duty. The mediators would then make money by passing the girls on to people in the prostitution industry. With the money the mediators received, some would go on to set up their own overseas brothels.[citation needed]

The end of the Meiji period was the golden age for karayuki-san, and the girls that went on these overseas voyages were known fondly as joshigun (女子軍), or "female army."[citation needed] However the reality was that many courtesans led sad and lonely lives in exile and often died young from sexual diseases, neglect and despair. With the greater international influence of Japan as it became a Great Power things began to change, and soon karayuki-san were considered shameful. During the 1910s and 1920s, Japanese officials overseas worked hard to eliminate Japanese brothels and maintain Japanese prestige,[9][10] although not always with absolute success. Many karayuki-san returned to Japan, but some remained.

After the Pacific War, the topic of karayuki-san was a little known fact of Japan's pre-war underbelly. But in 1972 Tomoko Yamazaki published Sandakan Brothel No. 8 which raised awareness of karayuki-san and encouraged further research and reporting.[citation needed]

The main destinations of karayuki-san included China (particularly Shanghai), Hong Kong, the Philippines, Borneo, Thailand, Indonesia, and the western USA (in particular San Francisco). They were often sent to Western colonies in Asia where there was a strong demand from Western military personnel and Chinese men.[11] There were cases of Japanese women being sent to places as far as Siberia, Manchuria, Hawaii, North America (California), and Africa (Zanzibar).

Non-Japanese Asian women working in Japan as dancers, singers, hostesses, and strippers from the second half of the 20th century are sometimes called japayuki-san (ジャパ行きさん, lit. "Miss Gone-to-Japan") and have become the subject of much controversy.[citation needed] The word itself is derogatory.

Postwar era[edit]

Immediately after World War II, the Recreation and Amusement Association was formed by Naruhiko Higashikuni's government to organize brothels to serve the Allied armed forces occupying Japan. On 19 August 1945, the Home Ministry ordered local government offices to establish a prostitution service for Allied soldiers to preserve the "purity" of the "Japanese race." The official declaration stated that "Through the sacrifice of thousands of 'Okichis' of the Shōwa era, we shall construct a dike to hold back the mad frenzy of the occupation troops and cultivate and preserve the purity of our race long into the future."[12] Such clubs were soon established by cabinet councilor Yoshio Kodama and Ryoichi Sasakawa.

SCAP abolished the licensed prostitution system (including the RAA) in 1946, which led to the so-called akasen (赤線?, red line) system, under which licensed nightlife establishments offered sexual services under the guise of being an ordinary club or cafe. Local police authorities traditionally regulated the location of such establishments by drawing red lines on a map. In other areas, so-called "blue line" establishments offered sexual services under the guise of being restaurants, bars or other less strictly-regulated establishments. In Tokyo, the best-known "red line" districts were Yoshiwara and Shinjuku 2-chome, while the best-known "blue line" district was Kabuki-cho.

In 1947, Imperial Ordinance No. 9 punished persons for enticing women to act as prostitutes, but prostitution itself remained legal. Several bills were introduced in the Diet to add further legal penalties for soliciting prostitutes but were not passed due to disputes over the appropriate extent of punishment.

On May 24, 1956, the Diet of Japan passed the Anti-Prostitution Law, which came into force in April 1958. The Anti-Prostitution Law criminalized the act of committing sexual intercourse in exchange for actual or promised compensation. This eliminated the "red line" and "blue line" systems and allowed a number of paid sexual services to continue under "sexual entertainment" regulations, e.g., "soaplands" and "fashion health" parlors.

In 2013, Toru Hashimoto, co-leads the Japan Restoration Party proposed “There are places where people can legally release their sexual energy in Japan,” and “Unless they make use of these facilities, it will be difficult to control the sexual energies of the wild Marines.”[13] However, U.S. Department of State criticized remarks of Hashimoto.[14]

Religious connotations[edit]


The Shinto faith does not regard sex as a taboo.


Buddhist teachings regarding sex are quite reserved: "It is true to say that Buddhism, in keeping with the principle of the Middle Way, would advocate neither extreme puritanism nor extreme permissiveness."[15] Buddhism has rules and protocols for those that are to live the Buddhist principles in the monasteries and the secular part of the [Shanga]. For the Buddhist monks or nuns, chastity is mandatory since they live on the premise of getting rid of any feelings of attachment. Their way of living is regulated by very strict rules concerning behavior and this includes sex.[15][16]

As for the secular Buddhists, there are no specific rules to be followed about sex; although, any kind of abuse is regarded as "misconduct."[17] Although since Buddhism is such an old philosophy, the authors who talk openly about the relation of Buddhism and prostitution are very modern.

Prostitution today[edit]

Legal status[edit]

Article 3 of the Anti-Prostitution Law (売春防止法 Baishun Bōshi Hō?) of 1956[18] states that "No person may either do prostitution or become the customer of it," but no judicial penalty is defined for this act. Instead, the following are prohibited on pain of penalty: soliciting for purposes of prostitution, procuring a person for prostitution, coercing a person into prostitution, receiving compensation from the prostitution of others, inducing a person to be a prostitute by paying an "advance," concluding a contract for making a person a prostitute, furnishing a place for prostitution, engaging in the business of making a person a prostitute, and the furnishing of funds for prostitution.[19]

The definition of prostitution is strictly limited to coitus.[20] This means sale of numerous acts such as oral sex, anal sex, mammary intercourse and other non-coital sex acts are legal. The Businesses Affecting Public Morals Regulation Law of 1948 (風俗営業取締法 Fūzoku Eigyō Torishimari Hō?),[21] amended in 1985 and 1999, regulates these businesses.


Soaplands town Yoshiwara (2008)

The sex industry in Japan uses a variety of names. Soaplands are bath houses where customers are soaped up and serviced by staff. Fashion health shops and pink salons are notionally massage or esthetic treatment parlors; image clubs are themed versions of the same. Call girls operate via delivery health services. Freelancers can get in contact with potential customers via deai sites (Internet dating sites), and the actual act of prostitution is legally called enjo kōsai or "compensated dating" to avoid legal trouble.

Kabukicho, an entertainment and red-light district in Shinjuku, Tokyo, measures only 0.34 km2, and has approximately 3,500 sex parlors, strip theaters, peep shows, "soaplands", 'lovers' banks, porno shops, sex telephone clubs, karaoke bars and clubs, etc.[citation needed]

Over 150,000 non-Japanese women are in prostitution in Japan.[citation needed] According to National Police Agency records, out of 50 non-Japanese people arrested for prostitution offences (売春防止法違反) in 2013, 31 (62%) were mainland Chinese, 13 (26%) were Koreans and 4 (8%) were Thai.[22]

Tokyo prostitution[edit]

In Tokyo, prostitution dates back several hundred years. In the early 17th century, the first attempts were made to criminalize prostitution in Yoshiwara in Edo (present-day Tokyo). A law was passed that required prostitutes to register and work in secured facilities, its main purpose being for tax collection.

Because of Tokyo's position as a top five global business and trade city, prostitution continues to thrive in Tokyo.


Several terms have been used as euphemisms for the sex industry in Japan:

  • Baishun (売春), literally "selling spring" or "selling youth", has turned from a mere euphemism into a legal term used in, for instance, the title of the 1956 Anti-Prostitution Law (Baishun-bōshi-hō, 売春防止法); the modern meaning of the word is quite specific and it is usually only used for actual (i.e., illegal) prostitution. The word for "prostitute" in Japanese is baishunfu (売春婦).
  • Mizu shōbai (水商売), the "water trade", is a wider term that covers the entire entertainment industry, including the legitimate, the illegal, and the borderline.
  • Fūzoku (風俗), literally "public morals", is commonly used to refer specifically to the sex industry, although in legal use this covers, e.g., dance halls and gambling, and the more specific term seifūzoku (性風俗), "sexual morals", is used instead. The term originates from a law regulating business affecting public morals.

Human trafficking[edit]

Japan is one of the top destinations for victims of human trafficking, according to a report produced by the UNODC.[23]

Women and children from East Asia, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Latin America are trafficked to Japan for commercial sexual exploitation.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Law bends over backward to allow 'fuzoku'", Japan Times, May 27, 2008.
  2. ^ Pink Box Japan
  3. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (2003), Interracial Intimacy in Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 48, ISBN 0-8264-6074-7 
  4. ^ a b Leupp, Gary P. (2003), Interracial Intimacy in Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 49, ISBN 0-8264-6074-7 
  5. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (2003), Interracial Intimacy in Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 35, ISBN 0-8264-6074-7 
  6. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (2003), Interracial Intimacy in Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 52, ISBN 0-8264-6074-7 
  7. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (2003), Interracial Intimacy in Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 50, ISBN 0-8264-6074-7 
  8. ^ Downer, Leslie, Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha, Broadway,ISBN 0-7679-0490-7, page 97
  9. ^ Mayumi Yamamoto, "Spell of the Rebel, Monumental Apprehensions: Japanese Discourses in Pieter Erberveld," Indonesia 77 (April 2004): 124–127
  10. ^ William Bradley Horton, "Comfort Women in Indonesia: A Consideration of the Prewar Socio-Legal Context in Indonesia and Japan." Ajiataiheiyotokyu 10 (2008): 144–146.
  11. ^ Books, UK: Google, August 2003, ISBN 978-9971-69-267-4 
  12. ^ Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the making of modern Japan, 2001, p. 538, citing Kinkabara Samon and Takemae Eiji, Showashi: kokumin non naka no haran to gekido no hanseiki-zohoban, 1989, p. 244.
  13. ^ Slavin, Erik (May 14, 2013). "Osaka mayor: ‘Wild Marines’ should consider using prostitutes". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved 2013-05-19. 
  14. ^ "Hashimoto remarks ‘outrageous and offensive’: U.S. State Department". Kyodo (Japan Times). 17, 2013. Retrieved 2013-05-19.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  15. ^ a b "Buddhism and Sex". 2011-06-16. Retrieved 2012-08-03. 
  16. ^ "The Rules for Buddhist Monks and Nuns". Retrieved 2013-10-24. 
  17. ^ "Sex and Buddhism - What Buddhism Teaches About Sex". Retrieved 2012-08-03. 
  18. ^ For the name, see WWWJDIC (link).
  19. ^ Hongo, Jun, "Law bends over backward to allow 'fuzoku'[dead link]", Japan Times, 27 May 2011, p. 3.
  20. ^ Ministry of Justice (Hōmushō), Materials Concerning Prostitution and Its Control in Japan. Tokyo: Ministry of Justice, 1957, p. 32. OCLC no. 19432229. Cited in Sanders, Holly. "Indentured Servitude and the Abolition of Prostitution in Postwar Japan". Cambridge, Mass.: Program on U.S.-Japan Relations, Harvard University, 2006, p. 41.
  21. ^ AKA "Law to Regulate Adult Entertainment Businesses". Sanders, "Indentured Servitude and the Abolition of Prostitution in Postwar Japan", p. 34.
  22. ^ "来日外国人犯罪の検挙状況(平成25年)【訂正版】". National Police Agency. 24 October 2014. p. 44. 
  23. ^ "Special Reports | UN highlights human trafficking". BBC News. 2007-03-26. Retrieved 2013-10-24. 
  24. ^ "Refworld | Trafficking in Persons Report 2009 - Japan". 2009-06-16. Retrieved 2013-10-24. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Araki, Nobuyoshi. Tokyo Lucky Hole. Köln; New York: Taschen, 1997. ISBN 3-8228-8189-9. 768 pages. Black and white photographs of Shinjuku sex workers, clients, and businesses taken 1983–5.
  • Associated Press. "Women turn to selling sexual favors in Japan"[dead link]. Taipei Times, December 9, 2002, p. 11. Accessed 11 October 2006.
  • Bornoff, Nicholas. Pink Samurai: Love, Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan. New York: Pocket Books, 1991. ISBN 0-671-74265-5.
  • Clements, Steven Langhorne. Tokyo Pink Guide. Tokyo: Yenbooks, 1993. ISBN 0-8048-1915-7.
  • Constantine, Peter. Japan's Sex Trade: A Journey Through Japan's Erotic Subcultures. Tokyo: Yenbooks, 1993. ISBN 4-900737-00-3.
  • "The Day the Red Lights Went Out in Japan[dead link]". MSN-Mainichi Daily News. April 1, 2008. Accessed April 2, 2008.
  • De Becker, J. E. The Nightless City ... or, The "History of the Yoshiwara Yūkwaku"., 4th ed. rev. Yokohama [etc.] M. Nössler & Co.; London, Probsthain & Co., 1905. ISBN 1-933330-38-4.
  • De Becker, J. E. The Nightless City: Geisha and Courtesan Life in Old Tokyo (reprint). Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2007. ISBN 0-486-45563-7.
  • De Mente, Boye Lafayette. Mizu Shobai: The Pleasure Girls and Flesh Pots of Japan. London: Ortolan Press, 1966.
  • De Mente, Boye Lafayette. Sex and the Japanese: The Sensual Side of Japan. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-8048-3826-7.
  • De Mente, Boye Lafayette. Tadahito Nadamoto (illus.). Some Prefer Geisha: The Lively Art of Mistress Keeping in Japan. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1966.
  • Fitzpatrick, William. Tokyo After Dark. New York: McFadden Books, 1965.
  • French, Howard W. "Japan's Red Light 'Scouts' and Their Gullible Discoveries". The New York Times. November 15, 2001. Accessed 11 October 2006.
  • Goodwin, Janet R. Selling Songs and Smiles: The Sex Trade in Heian and Kamakura Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007. ISBN 0-8248-3068-7, ISBN 0-8248-3097-0.
  • Japan The Trafficking of Women[dead link].
  • Kamiyama, Masuo. "The day Japan's red lights flickered out[dead link]". MSN-Mainichi Daily News. February 25, 2006. Accessed 11 October 2006.
  • Kattoulas, Velisarios. "Human Trafficking: Bright Lights, Brutal Life"[dead link]. Far East Economic Review. August 3, 2000. Accessed 11 October 2006.
  • Longstreet, Stephen, and Ethel Longstreet. Yoshiwara: City of the Senses. New York: McKay, 1970.
  • McMurtrie, Douglas C. Ancient Prostitution in Japan. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-4253-7206-6. Originally published in Stone, Lee Alexander (ed.). The Story of Phallicism volume 2. Chicago: Pascal Covici, 1927. Reprinted Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-7661-4115-2.
  • Seigle, Cecilia Segawa. Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of ihe Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993. ISBN 0-8248-1488-6.
  • Sinclair, Joan (2006). Pink Box: Inside Japan's Sex Clubs. New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0-8109-9259-0. 
  • The World's Oldest Debate? Prostitution and the State in Imperial Japan, 1900–1945
  • Talmadge, Eric. Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath. Tokyo ; New York: Kodansha International, 2006. ISBN 4-7700-3020-7.
  • Yokoyama, M. "Analysis of Prostitution in Japan". International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 19, no. 1 (1995): 47–60.
  • Yokoyama, M. "Emergence of Anti-Prostitution Law in Japan—Analysis from Sociology of Criminal Law". International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 17, no. 2 (1993): 211–218.

External links[edit]